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Sunday, 12 July 2020

An Amazing Game

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: The Adventure Game is a roleplaying game based upon the 1986 film Labyrinth. In that film, the frustrated sixteen-year old Sarah wishes away her baby brother, Toby, whom she has to babysit, but upon discovering that he has been kidnapped by Goblins, realises her error. However, Jareth, the Goblin King, offers here a deal—her dreams in exchange for the return of her brother. When she refuses, he gives an ultimatum: Enter and solve his labyrinth and find Toby before thirteen hours are up and he is turned into a goblin forever. In the course of the story, Sarah will find her way through the labyrinth, passing through the Hedge Maze, the Goblin City, and more, to confront the Goblin King in his castle and so gain her brother back, all with the help of friends and allies. In Labyrinth: The Adventure Game, several brave adventurers—each of whom has also lost something to the Goblin King—shall venture into the Labyrinth, solve its puzzles, overcome its challenges, make allies, and help each other in order to get back that which was lost.

Published by River Horse Games—the publisher of the surprisingly good Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling GameLabyrinth: The Adventure Game is a self-contained roleplaying game, designed to be played by four or five players plus the Goblin King. In fact, it is so self-contained that open up the book and you will find a pair of dice sitting in a pocket punched through the corner of the pages. This is of course, in addition to the full rules and some ninety or so locations and encounters the adventurers can explore and have in the course of their making their way to the Goblin King’s Castle. Its format and style of play echo the solo adventure books of Fighting Fantasy—and others, but the number of encounters and scenes means that even if a group of players get through the Labyrinth and defeat the Goblin King, they could play through again and not necessarily repeat either encounters or scenes. The roleplaying game’s simple mechanics, quick set-up time, and linear way in which the encounters organised—though not necessarily played—means that the Goblin King, as the Game Master is known in Labyrinth: The Adventure Game, could bring to the game to the table with relatively little preparation.

Each Player Character in Labyrinth: The Adventure Game is defined by three things—his Kin or Race, a Trait—something that he is good at, and a Flaw—something that he is bad at. The six given Traits are paired abilities like ‘Singing and Dancing’ and ‘Lifting and Pushing’, but a player is always free to create his own as long as they fit the setting. The Flaws include ‘Overconfident’ and ‘Coward’, and again, a player is free to create his own. The listed Kin include not just the protagonists as in the film, but others that were at best minor members of the cast or adversaries. So, they include Human, like Sarah; Dwarf, like Hoggle; Horned Beast, like Ludo; and Knight of Yore, like Sir Didymus. The others are Firey, Goblin, and Worm. Each Kin has its own particular Trait. So, a Dwarf has a Job like Gardner or Plumber and associated tools; a Firey can separate his limbs and head and create small fires from his fingertips with Detachable Limbs and Fire Fingers; a Goblin gas Goblin Features and can get into a lot places unnoticed that others cannot; a Horned Beast has the Very Big Flaw, but can mentally control a type of object like plants or water; a Human has two Traits, not one; a Knight of Yore is Honourable and can find and tame a Steed; and a Worm has the Very Small Flaw and the Wall Climbing Trait. All of these model the character types seen on screen in the film, but there is nothing to stop a player and the Goblin King working out something else about their character if he wants to play something different.

To create a character, a player simply selects a Kin, a Trait, and a Flaw. He also decides on a name and a reason why he is in the Labyrinth, that is, what exactly does the Goblin King have of his? Given the limited number of options, a player could actually create his character in sixty-seconds, and four or five players create theirs and be ready to play in five minutes! Where there is a problem is with what drives the Player Characters forward, further into the Labyrinth. The discussion of this is a little light, and whilst experienced roleplayers will have no problems coming up with ideas, for anyone new to the hobby via Labyrinth: The Adventure Game, well some suggestions and inspiration might have been useful for them.

Our sample character is Bobby, a teenager with well-deserved reputation as a sneak and a thief. At home he is bratty and difficult as his parents are going through a divorce, and most recently his mother’s jewellery has disappeared. He fears for the consequences should he be blamed and desperately wants to get them back.

Traits: Listening and Spotting, Sneaking and Hiding
Flaw: Selfish
Goal: To recover his mother’s jewellery

Mechanically, Labyrinth: The Adventure Game is very simple. Whenever a Player Character wants to undertake an action which has consequences, his player rolls a single six-sided die. If the result is equal to, or exceeds, a difficulty—ranging from two or ‘Piece of Cake’ to six or ‘It’s not fair!’—the Player Character succeeds. Should a Player Character have an advantage, such as from a Trait, the player rolls two dice and takes the better result. Conversely, if a Player Character is at a disadvantage, his player rolls two dice and takes the worse result. Having a suitable piece of equipment or another Player Character help a Player Character out using one of his Traits, lowers the Difficulty, or in some cases ensures that the acting Player Character succeeds.

Instead of combat mechanics, Labyrinth: The Adventure Game opts for action scenes, since this is not a game where the Player Characters or NPCs can be killed, or violence is necessarily the answer. In purely mechanical terms, characters do not have weapons, armour, or even the equivalent of Hit Points. This is not to say that neither weapons or armour could come into play, but their effects would really be narrative rather than mechanical, and the same goes for injuries suffered. However, there are no rules or little in the way of guidance for handling this and again, for anyone coming to Labyrinth: The Adventure Game as their first roleplaying game, this may be a problem. 

What it means though, is that the players and their characters will need to be more inventive in how they overcome the challenges they face. Ideally though, both the Goblin King and her players should be taking a cue for this from the film itself, so action scenes and what might be combats in other roleplaying games should here be slightly cartoonish in style and the way that they play out. 

Another aspect of the mechanics is that they are player facing, that is, the Goblin King never roles against the Player Characters—only the players roll, either to act, to persuade, or avoid a threat. The Goblin King can roll though on any one of the random tables that litter the scenes and encounters to determine something about the scene or an NPC, and she also rolls to determine how far the Player Characters will progress into the Labyrinth as they move from scene to scene. Throughout their progress through the Labyrinth, the Player Characters will find equipment and potions and things to help them, and these can be used to get past obstacles, to barter with the inhabitants of the Labyrinth, and so on. Ideally, although each Player Character can carry a limited number of items, each player should be looking to pick up as many as they can and be inventive in their use.

All of the rules, character creation, and advice for the Goblin King take up just the first thirty-five pages of the two-hundred-and-ninety-two pages of Labyrinth: The Adventure Game. The other almost ninety percent consists of descriptions of the Labyrinth itself. These are divided across five chapters—the Stonewalls, the Hedge Maze, the Land of Yore, the Goblin City, and finally the Castle of the Goblin King. Each one is strictly a two-page spread, which makes them very to use at the table—no need to flip back and forth anywhere. Each comes with a description to read to the players, a map and a key explaining its features and challenges, a table of random elements, and possible consequences. So ‘The Wrecking Crew’ in the Stone Walls has the Player Characters run into a Goblin gang demolishing a corridor for renovation and the bad news is that they have no idea what they are doing! Tables enable the Goblin King to randomise both explosives and the Goblins, and the consequences are either that they get past and continue onward, or the explosives are detonated, and the Player Characters are blinded, knocked down, coughing, and covered in green powder in the next scene. Some of Scenes, such as the Oubliette, The Land of Stench, and Ted’s Quest will be familiar from the film, but many are not from the film and so will surprise anyone who knows the film well.

These Scenes are ordered one after the other from The Gatekeepers to the Goblin Castle. Now the Player Characters will start at The Gatekeepers and end at the Goblin Castle, but they will not play them one after the other. Instead, at the end of most scenes, the Goblin King will roll a die and move the number rolled that number of Scenes forward. Their movement forward is measured as Progress and they need to complete Scenes to increase their Progress, but if a Scene proves too challenging or they want to revisit an earlier Scene, the Player Characters can move backwards. This does not mean that they reduce their Progress, but it does mean that Player Characters can go back to an earlier Scene and attempt to find another route forward if they get stuck, and it also builds the labyrinthine feel of the game. 

What this also means is that on an average playthrough of Labyrinth: The Adventure Game, a group of Player Characters will play between twenty-five and thirty Scenes before getting to the Goblin Castle. This is played differently to the previous Scenes, with the Player Characters chasing the Goblin King round his castle, moving more freely from room to room, and it more has the feel of a board game, Tortoise and the Hare-like, as they chase down the Goblin King and he runs away from them.

The other tracking factor that runs throughout Labyrinth: The Adventure Game is the time limit. Just like the film, the Player Characters have thirteen hours in which to penetrate the Labyrinth and get to the Goblin King’s Castle and defeat him. In general, as long as the Player Characters are moving forward and overcoming obstacles and challenges from one Scene to the next, they will not lose time. However, failing to overcome challenges in some Scenes, wasting time in certain Scenes, and occasionally, but not always, going back to an earlier scene, will cost the Player Characters time—an hour each time. Specifically, there is no countdown—though it would be fantastic to have a thirteen hour countdown at the table when playing Labyrinth: The Adventure Game—but when the thirteen hours are up and the Player Characters have failed to get to the Goblin Castle or have got there and failed to defeat him, then they do actually lose.

To win though, all the Player Characters have to do is defeat the Goblin King. That though is not physical confrontation, but rather like the film, a demonstration that he has not influence or power over the Player Characters. Fans of the film can of course cite the mantra from the end of the Labyrinth—and that is included in Labyrinth: The Adventure Game. Success means that the Player Characters can grab back stolen goods, kidnap victims, or the solution to whatever was driving them to enter the Labyrinth. Afterwards, Human characters can go home, other characters can get on with their lives, but in a nicer world free of the Goblin King.

Unfortunately, this final confrontation is really underdeveloped. The problem is that the Goblin King is not really described and whilst there is a Goblin King character sheet for the Goblin King to use, and it is suggested that the Goblin King create a Goblin King NPC of her own, there is no advice or help to that end either. Now obviously in the film, the Goblin King is mean to be ephemeral, almost a cypher, but Labyrinth: The Adventure Game leaves the Goblin King to make him as best she can, perhaps basing upon the version played by David Bowie in the film. Given that it is possible to play through Labyrinth: The Adventure Game more than once, this seems such a missed opportunity upon the part of the designers.

Physically, Labyrinth: The Adventure Game is stunning little digest-sized hardback. The artwork by Brian Froud—whose illustrations formed the basis of the film—is excellent as you would expect, but the other illustrations are also good. The writing is decent, and the maps are fantastic, and it is clear that a lot of thought put into layout and the organisation which make the book so easy to use. Further, Labyrinth: The Adventure Game comes with not one, but three cloth bookmarks, and not just because. The red bookmark is used to mark the Player Characters’ progress, the others where they might actually be in the Labyrinth, and so on, which is easier than perhaps making a physical note of it.

Of course, anyone who is fan of the film coming to Labyrinth: The Adventure Game needs to know that this is not something like the board game—also published by River Horse Games—that can be brought to the table, played in a single session, and put away again. As easy as it is to set up and start playing, Labyrinth: The Adventure Game will take multiple sessions to play through, unless you want to play through it in one long session.

Labyrinth: The Adventure Game is not the roleplaying game for the film, Labyrinth. In other words, it is not a sourcebook for the setting portrayed on the screen and it does not allow a Game Master or Goblin King to create that world which her players can visit again and again. Almost like a programmed module or solo adventure—or even a co-operative board game like PandemicLabyrinth: The Adventure Game presents a series of challenges and obstacles which the players and their characters can play through multiple times to see if they can defeat the Goblin King. In fact, they may need to if they do not first succeed, and further, the linear order of the Scenes combined with the Progress mechanic means that on a second, or even a third playthrough, the players might not repeat any Scenes except those at the beginning or the end. Though again, playing through it more than once is not a topic that Labyrinth: The Adventure Game addresses.

Labyrinth: The Adventure Game is adorable and charming and it captures the feel of the Labyrinth world with its mixture of bolshiness and bravado and beauty through Scene after Scene, but it is incredibly underdeveloped in places—motivations for the Player Characters, creation and portrayal of the Goblin King, revisiting the Labyrinth, and so on, are just explored enough or at all. None of this will challenge an experienced Game Master, but anyone coming to Labyrinth: The Adventure Game new to roleplaying games and they will find it challenging because Labyrinth: The Adventure Game provides no help—and it should do.

Labyrinth: The Adventure Game is a fantastic format and a fantastic adaptation of the Labyrinth film. It enables a playing group to revisit the story of the film multiple times—whether they succeed or feel in defeating the Goblin King—and do so with very light, easy to grasp storytelling mechanics that emphasise problem-solving and co-operation, all packaged in a beautiful book.

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